Port Hedland looks like a dot on the north-western edge of this large red country. I arrived there with no answers for Port Hedland and my questions were a jumble. In my backpack was the poster I had made to remind me of why I had come: “Go, not to collect experiences, but to be transformed.”
I was sent to Port Hedland for a supervised rural placement from mid-July to early August, the best time in the year because that was when it was cool. Eight months of the year, temperatures soar, starting from 38 degrees. The harsh environment has been said to draw more than the average share of misfits, mercenaries, mavericks and missionaries – people who were running away from something or someone, debts, crime and failed relationships.
It was as I expected: Martian landscape, remote, sparsely populated and industrial.
What caught me by surprise was its strange beauty, an immense, seemingly empty space, suffused with untamed, quiet power. At the beach at Cooke Point one morning, the moist sand bore the contours of the waves. The sky sent an echo in scallops of white cloud. At my feet, shallow streams of water gargled softly. I could have just walked across the water to the next little patch of sand, but didn’t – rather, couldn’t. Almost shouldn’t.
Something in me had stirred in this vast flatness where earth and sky merged. It was a prayer of praise and gratitude. It was not in the head, it was whole body knowing. The land is speaking, converting me to it. Perhaps this is what Australia’s First Peoples have known all along: God calling creation into being, breathing into it Psalms of awe and praise.
At the Spinifex Hill Studios, Delphine came to me skipping and filled with smiles, she led me to her grandmother, Maggie Green, who was putting the last dots on her canvas. She spoke in one of the dozens of Aboriginal languages of the Pilbara. Nearby, Grandfather Green sat beside an unfinished painting of his hill country. He told me about it over and over in language I barely understood. I could only pick out some words. “Hill country, head, heart, memory. I’m going to Darwin, but I will be back. Hill country, head, heart, memory. I’m going and will be back.”
He was telling a story. Why, it is God the storyteller!
This is what parables are about; they seem to have something to say all the time. We have a new experience and it means something else, disclosing a deeper underlying layer of meaning. The Jews are good at that, writing Midrash to retell stories in order to fill in the blanks. Jesus followed in this tradition, making up parables for people to mull over. The stories are there, offered as invitations to make meaning out of – a way of making sacred history come alive.
As I said goodbye, Grandfather Green asked, “When will you be back?” His question broke my heart. I was leaving to get on with studies, husband and the rest of my life. I didn’t know when I was going to be back. Only now as I write, do I realise Grandfather Green had welcomed me to country. Having experienced the numinous time at Cooke Point and the welcome from so many people, including Grandfather Green, I had crossed a threshold. How clear this became, as from my plane cleared the thick blanket of winter cloud to reveal Perth’s trees and ponds, wet roads and skyscrapers.
I had been away less than a month, but was arriving a stranger wondering, “All these roads, these buildings. I’ll be lost here.”
Grandfather Green’s question echoes as I awake under a quilt another morning. His question breaks my heart again. My heart: broken, open, warm, compassionate and welcoming. A gift of Grandfather Green’s story and the land.
I had gone away to the edge, met God in land, story and myself. I have been blessed.
Sophia is a candidate for ministry in the Uniting Church in Australia. In this supervised rural placement, she was joined by the people of Port Hedland Uniting Church.
Top image: Delphine with her Grandfather Green beside his painting.